Does science need press releases?

It’s increasingly common to see universities publishing press releases about newly published papers from academics. This practice emerged a few decades ago and originally seemed to be associated with health and medical research (educated guess, not sure there are any data on this).

But it has since spread more widely to many other disciplines. Ecology journals are now doing it; some ask you to submit a mandatory media summary with your manuscript ‘just in case’ (most authors will never get a media request). Some of the Big Famous journals operate on a strict authoritarian embargo system, to ensure the author doesn’t exercise their right to talk to people about their own research.

The lure of the press release has also gone beyond published papers at some universities. I’ve seen universities do press releases because an academic posted a preprint (sometimes with diastrous consquequences), because an academic became a handling editor at a journal, and because an academic attended a conference. We already know that we need more journalists and communications professionals with specialist science training, but this also raises some interesting questions about the goals of science PR.

What exactly is the purpose of a press release?

A press release is a company announcement. It’s organisation-centric, not issue-centric, and it is designed to promote specific events or statements from the organisation. Press releases are inherently biased to promote an entity, not a broader issue or body of knowledge. This doesn’t mean the facts are automatically incorrect or that they should be ignored, but it does mean a reader needs to interpret the release with this bias in mind.

It also makes you think about whether press releases are appropriate for communicating scientific papers. Aside from the debate over whether a piece of research ‘belongs’ to the researchers or the institution they work at (not the scope of this post), I think there is an obvious conundrum here.

New papers (even the big data analyses that claim global generalisation) are just a tiny piece in a bigger puzzle of knowledge. No single paper is the answer to All The Problems.  

We would be wary if we saw a researcher on social media claiming that their latest paper was The Answer…no more research needed. Yet this is exactly how academic press releases generally frame research outputs in an effort to achieve what press releases need to do: promote the organisation and get media attention.

Many of you are probably agreeing with me that press releases unnecessarily exaggerate scientific research, but we all buy into it. Imagine seeing a release that said “Dr X has published a new paper that suggests that butterfly species Y might be influenced by a range of environment factors, but the effect on the population likely depends on the interaction between the time of year adults lay eggs and the land use history of the place they lay eggs.”

You would probably roll your eyes, the same way you would at the press release announcing that Dr Z attended a conference.

But if it read “Dr X’s research has proven that global butterflies are rapidly mutating because of agriculture!”, we’d all click through.

Who cares?

Of course I’m not criticising the concept of press releases, and most researchers would love it if their institution’s press office showed regular interest in their research.

But the global dominance of digital content is increasing, not decreasing. Commercial news media organisations are increasingly (not always ethically) relying on verbatim reproduction of press releases, instead of funding actual journalism.

Examples abound of research results being exaggerated and misrepresented in popular media, and these examples can nearly always be traced back to an institutional press release, from the Insect Apocalypse, to medical cures or disease-causing agents.

Another common mistake press releases make is to present standard opinion or synthesis articles (which simply summarise disciplinary knowledge that has been established for years) as ground-breaking ‘new discoveries’. Even if these press releases get all the facts accurate, they still misrepresent the process of science – one paper, one researcher, does not solve all the problems single-handedly in a vacuum.

In keeping with my argument, this post is not here to solve any problems or recommend any particular solutions. I’m not specifically arguing for or against press releases. I used to work in corporate comms, of course I appreciate the value of a good press release.

But I am musing about their role in effective science communication. With the increasing influence of academic blogs and social media, more scientists are taking broader communication of their research into their own hands, often providing more nuance than a press release. What’s the future for the science paper press release?

© Manu Saunders 2020

7 thoughts on “Does science need press releases?

  1. Bartosz Bartkowski September 3, 2020 / 9:46 PM

    Some of the Big Famous journals operate on a strict authoritarian embargo system, to ensure the author doesn’t exercise their right to talk to people about their own research.

    Interesting (and worrying), I haven’t heard of this. Do you have any specific examples?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders September 4, 2020 / 7:46 AM

      My expression was mildy joking – I’m referring to the embargoes many journals have, meaning the author is not allowed to have any press releases or media reports published before the paper is published.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Michael Rogers September 4, 2020 / 2:01 AM

    Great read! The core tension you highlight is avoiding misrepresenting the process, while also capturing the audiences attention. I wonder if press releases of science should modify the subject matters of emphases to address this conflict? Maybe press releases should focus on the methods (e.g., collaborations, funding, agreements, etc) not the flashy “groundbreaking” results. It is important we talk about the results, but I too question whether press releases are the appropriate mode of communicating.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Matt Cawood September 4, 2020 / 9:59 AM

    As a producer of press releases, I’d like to note that:

    releases only go out after being approved by researcher. Sometimes that means a lot of massaging by the researcher (sometimes to my despair, because the result can be beige mush that will get quickly consigned to the newsdesk bin). And sometimes the researchers are delighted, because a journalist might find a clear signal in information that to the researcher has become a lot of noise.
    some generalisation is usually necessary, but a generalisation doesn’t have to misrepresent the research. If there are qualifications (and there are always qualifications), they can be pointed to quickly and neatly in the release.
    press releases are not there to represent the entirety of the research in its fidelity. It’s about stimulating media interest in the research, ideally resulting in interviews with the researcher who then can present the work in all its nuance. Increasingly, though, the press release is used without any followup because media outlets no longer have the resources to allocate to in-depth stories. Not that long ago, it was a journalistic crime to use a press release without doing your own footwork on it first. Now it’s commonplace, a boon for PR firms and terrible for the public.
    some research is of public interest, and the press release remains a useful vehicle for reaching the media that reach the public. A lot of research is researchers talking to researchers, and there are other well-worn channels for that sort of communication.

    Don’t rule out the press release just yet.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Manu Saunders September 4, 2020 / 12:53 PM

      Thanks Matt! Agree, in theory the system should work, but often it doesn’t. It is potentially only really an issue when a bad press release gets more attention than it should, which is thankfully uncommon. But even one such example can have an impact on public understanding of science.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. sturatblog September 16, 2020 / 6:09 PM

    I think a scientist in applied research (agricultural R&D for example) should imagine a draft media release. Impact is not a dirty word. I also think 3 minute thesis, elevator summaries and other brief mechanisms can all help. But they are not the full bottle.

    Liked by 1 person

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